Mark Tribe is the Chair of MFA Fine Arts Department at the School of Visual Arts in New York (SVA) and a well-known artist, founder of Rhizome - a not-for-profit arts organization, the author of two books, curator and participant in a lot of different projects. At the end of July, I visited Tribe in his spacious and light-filled studio on Long Island City to talk about how to select an MFA program, contemporary art and opportunities for emerging artists in New York. The interview was posted on LiveJournal of the Museum of Contemporary Arts Erarta.
What are the most important questions in considering an MFA program and how to decide among the many art schools and universities?
First — the curriculum, the structure of the program and how much flexibility is given to you as a student. do you want to go to a photography program and just study with other photographers, or do you want to be in a mix with photographers and sculptors and performers and all arts together. The next big question is the faculty. Look for faculty who inspire you, whose work you admire, who you think you could learn from. Then of course there's location. New York can be more challenging because it is so expensive, so intense, but you can learn a lot being here. Also where you go to school will in part determine where you have a community, what kind professional network you leave school with. If you go to school in New York, you will have a head start if you want to stay here, if you want to try to be an artist here.
What are the distinctive features of MFA Fine Arts program at SVA?
The MFA Fine Arts Department is multidisciplinary and our students work across different art forms: painting, drawing, printmaking, sculpture, photography, video, performance, installation, new media and social practice. The thing that distinguishes us from other interdisciplinary MFA programs in New York is our faculty, a remarkable group of accomplished artists, curators and critics. Our students have the opportunity to work with Marilyn Minter, Fred Wilson, Laurel Nakadate, Leigh Ledare, Wangechi Mutu, Lisa Sigal, Mickalene Thomas, Kate Gilmore, Fred Wilson, and Paul Pfeiffer, to name a few.
What is the selection process and criteria in admitting applicants to the MFA Fine Arts program? Who is involved in the decision-making process?
Students submit a portfolio of images and/or videos, a statement, a resume, and three letters of reference to SVA's admissions department. It is very important that you submit a complete file, because it is difficult for us to review incomplete ones. We then assemble an Admissions Committee to review the applications: six faculty, a recent graduate of the program, and me. We review all the applications and go through several rounds of voting, focusing primarily on the quality of the portfolio and the clarity of the statement. We try to select the most promising artists and to assemble a diverse class. We receive an average of 340 applications each year for 32 spots.
There is a limited number of works that applicants can represent in their portfolio. What should applicant's portfolio demonstrate: their last works, the best works or the diversity of an applicant's art practice?
Applicants should include their best recent work. It is not important to show that you can do a lot of different things well—rather than trying to show your range, it is usually better to present a coherent portfolio and to articulate in your statement how the works relate to one another. Your statement should also address your intentions and why you feel SVA would be a good fit for you.
Is it necessary to have an art background to enter in MFA program, or could applicants be accepted from different professional fields?
It is not necessary that students have an undergraduate degree in art per se, but it is important that they have a significant body of art work and knowledge of contemporary art, art history, and the theoretical frameworks that inform current art criticism.
What do you expect from students? How would you describe your "perfect student"?
What we expect from students is they experiment fearlessly, challenge themselves creatively, do the best work they can, try to keep an open mind, participate and interact actively, and support one another. The ideal student? I don't know... It is more like the ideal group of students: a group that represents many different ways of working. The MFA program encourages students to experiment as much as possible and to explore new mediums and technologies during the educational process. But I suppose that it is much more difficult to demonstrate good results in a new medium, than in the medium that student has already known.
What is more important: to show a perfect result and development in an already known medium, or mastering a new medium or technology?
It really depends on the artist. For me, I am always trying new things and new practices. You can see behind you this big photograph of a virtual landscape made using new printing technology on Dibond. I never made anything quite like it before. My work is constantly evolving; as soon as I figure something out I move on.
But you are not a student who is evaluated
Yes, but at the graduate level, I believe that we should treat our students like professional artists. Some artists have a lifelong commitment to a medium. But other students are always exploring new mediums. I encourage artists to try new things. In my case, when I have done performance, I have hired actors and guitarists and collaborated with choreographers. For other artists, it is important that they themselves perform in the work. There are a lot of different valid approaches.
It sound like you do not expect excellent results, just you want students to become more open-minded?
No, we do hope for excellent results. But sometimes excellent results don't require years of training to develop technical mastery. Let's take video, for example. There are some approaches to making video art that are really difficult, like feature-length scripted drama. That is not an easy thing to do well the first time. But there are other approaches that require less skill.
Are there some media that you encourage students to work with more than others?
No. In the past our program was weighted towards painting, sculpture, installation and video, but that is changing.
What are the criteria of evaluating student's works?
It depends.. the criteria change from artist to artist, from project to project. And it is also depends on who is evaluating the work. I feel like each art work establishes its own criteria. The criteria for evaluating minimalist paintings are very different from those for evaluating social practice.
Which career prospects do SVA alumni have?
There are many different career paths for contemporary artists. Some of our students go on very quickly to careers as fulltime artists. But it is more common to see paths that involve teaching or other kinds of jobs. One of our graduates has a high-end inkjet printing business called Supreme Digital in Brooklyn. He started out buying a large format printer for his own works but also to make prints for friends, and it grew into a successful operation. Other graduates work in art institutions, museums, art galleries, non-profit organizations. Many artists do work that simply isn't meant for the marketplace, work that is relatively difficult to sell. Few performance artists, for example, are able to support themselves on their art work alone. So they find other ways to support themselves. In the MFA Fine Arts program at SVA, we emphasize the importance of developing a long-term commitment to one's artistic practice, regardless of one's financial circumstances.
What roles do contemporary artists play in the modern world?
Different artists play different roles. Some artists are private, producing works in the studio that are intended only to be exhibited in galleries and museums. Other artists are engaged in the world and do socially engaged work that involves collaboration with non-artists and don't have studios at all. There are artists who are public intellectuals and there are artists who are hipsters. There is no single model, no single role.
Which features of character should an emerging artist have to achieve success?
Perseverance. I remember when I was twenty-one years old and was taking my second art class in college, I said to my teacher, "This is what I want to do in my life: I want to be an artist." She suddenly got very serious, and she responded: "Mark, there is one thing you have to know: being an artist is really hard. If you are going do it, you have to commit to it and stick with it, even it gets hard, even it seems thankless. Don't give up." That really stuck with me. We have a word for this in America: "grit." No matter what happens, you find a way to keep making art. That's the most important character trait for success as an artist.
Even more than talent?
Talent isn't just aptitude. It's the intersection of what you're good at and what you love. That's perhaps the most important thing you can learn in school: where is the overlap between your skills and your passions?
Should an artist be responsible of the consequences of his action when his works are related with politics and society?
Yes, we are responsible for the consequences of our actions and our work, but we cannot always predict them.
Do you believe that artist can influence society?
Sometimes the language of contemporary art is very sophisticated. Should an artist care about how his art is accepted by audience? Who is the recipient of contemporary art?
Again, it depends. Jeff Koons, for example, is an artist whose work is very accessible. He wants to make work that is pleasing to a broad audience. There are others who are more challenging and difficult. It is OK that some contemporary art is difficult. Hopefully, the audience is very diverse too. That is something that artists can learn in graduate school: what the right audience is for the work, and how they can reach it. More and more, artists have to construct their own audiences. You can find audiences online, you can find audiences by creating your own spaces, events and programs. People make often make the mistake of referring to the art world as a singular thing. There are many art worlds.
You chair the MFA Fine Arts Department at SVA, you founded Rhizome, you create art works, you curate, you write books. How do you manage to combine so many different activities? How do you prioritize?
Yes, it is hard to prioritize. I don't write so much now, I've pretty much stopped curating, and I am not so involved in Rhizome on a day-to-day basis. I mostly focus on two things: making art and running this MFA program. I also have a family. It is hard to balance everything. I think it is a challenge for most artists, because most of us have day jobs, have to balance a private life and making money and finding time and creative energy to make art. It helps if you really love it.